The Role of Baraka and the Jnoun in Moroccan Henna
Everyday concepts are sometimes difficult to explain because they are an intrinsic part of one’s life and have never required a definition. Such is the case with baraka in Morocco … it’s just baraka. It has often been described as “blessings” or “divine favor,” which it is—and so much more. A person can have baraka in much the same way that one can be said to be lucky (although baraka is not as simple as luck). Objects also have baraka. Not only can baraka exist in jewelry, talismans, and other handcrafted objects, such as ceramics and textiles, it is also thought to suffuse plants, such as henna, wheat, and oleander, and incenses, such as benzoin, sandalwood, and myrrh.
According to Vincent Crapanzano in The Hamadsha: A Study in Moroccan Ethnopsychiatry (quoting Clifford Geertz): Literally, “baraka” means blessing, in the sense of divine favor. But spreading out from that nuclear meaning, specifying and delimiting it, it encloses a whole range of linked ideas: material prosperity, physical wellbeing, bodily satisfaction, completion, luck, plenitude, and, the aspect most stressed by Western writers anxious to force it into a pigeonhole with mana, magical power. In broadest terms, “baraka” is not, as it has so often been represented, a paraphysical force, a kind of spiritual electricity—a view which, though not entirely without basis, simplifies it beyond recognition. Like the notion of the exemplary center, it is a conception of the mode in which the divine reaches into the world. Implicit, uncriticized, and far from systematic, it too is a “doctrine.”
More exactly, it is a mode of construing—emotionally, morally, intellectually—human experience, a cultural gloss on life. And though this is a vast and intricate problem,what this construction, this gloss, comes down to, … is the proposition (again, of course, wholly tacit) that the sacred appears most directly in the world as an endowment—a talent and a capacity, a special ability—of particular individuals. Rather than electricity, the best (but still not very good) analogue for “baraka” is personal presence, force of character, moral vividness. Marabouts [saints] have “baraka” in the way that men have strength, courage, dignity, skill, beauty, or intelligence. Like these, though it is not the same as these, more even of all of them put together, it is a gift which some men have in greater degree than others, and which a few, marabouts, have in superlative degree. The problem is to decide who (not only, as we shall see, among the living, but also among the dead) has it, how much, and how to benefit from it.
There are two types of baraka. There is institutionalized baraka, which is inherited by descendants of saints and of the Prophet Mohammed; such baraka cannot be diminished, but it can be transmitted to others. And then there is personal baraka, which is acquired/earned in one’s lifetime through personal merit and depends on character, piety, spirituality, moral fiber, and natural gifts (such as the gift of healing); such baraka is not heritable, but it also can be transmitted. Personal baraka is not something that one can hoard and use at a later date; rather, it manifests itself immediately in good health, fertility, or good fortune. Baraka can be received/acquired directly or indirectly by contact with someone or something possessing a lot of baraka.
Henna has intrinsic baraka that benefits those who apply it to their skin or hair. Repeated application of henna is required to continue the transmission of baraka. The use of henna for important events such as weddings and circumcisions ensures that participants, who may be in a vulnerable state during these events, are endowed with baraka to protect and bless them.
Neither angel nor devil, jnoun are supernatural beings with a weakness for henna. Jnoun is the plural form of jinn from which our word “genie” is derived. The Qur’an attests to their existence, but they are not limited to Islam; there are Muslim (both Arab and Amazigh) jnoun as well as Jewish, Christian, and pagan jnoun. Vincent Crapanzano, in The Hamadsha: A Study in Moroccan Ethnopsychiatry, describes them as a race of spiritual beings, created before man and said to be composed of vapor or flame. They are not normally extended over space, but they do exist over time. They are intelligent creatures, resembling human beings, but they have no bodies and are usually imperceptible to man’s ordinary senses. They are, however, capable of rendering themselves visible, and often take on various animal forms: snakes, frogs, wasps, temptresses or male seducers. The jnoun are capable of marrying humans....
In Morocco, the jnoun’s origins are thought to be African, brought by the Gnawa, a Sufi brotherhood most common in the south of Morocco. Jnoun are not necessarily evil, but they have the capacity for vengence when wronged; they are also whimsical, quick-tempered, and capricious. It is possible to inadvertently insult a jinn by stepping on a place where the jinn lives, pouring hot water on the jinn, or doing harm to an animal who is actually a jinn. When angered, a jinn can strike a person or possess him or her, at which point an exorcism is called for. If the exorcism does not work, the healer will negotiate an agreement between the possessed person and the jinn, allowing the jinn to possess the person without harming him or her; in return, the possessed agrees to do certain things to placate the jinn, such as wear certain colors or burn incense favored by that particular jinn. The possessed in such an arrangement thinks of him- or herself as married to the jinn.
In Morocco, there are a number of jnoun who have names, among them three female jnoun to whom henna is important. We now present the all time MVP jnoun of henna: Aisha, Mira, and Malika... collect all three!
Coming in at number one is the famous Aisha Qandisha (aka Lalla Aisha), known and feared throughout Morocco for her feet like a camel and her pendent breasts. She sometimes appears as a tempting beauty, sometimes as a frightful hag. Her favorite colors are black, red, and green; her favorite incense is black jawi (benzoin); and her favorite music is from the Hamadsha (a Sufi brotherhood known for their healing trance ceremonies). Aisha never laughs and can strike in anger; followers calm her wrath by rubbing their bodies in henna and making offerings of henna and prayers at the many sacred spots devoted to her that dot the Moroccan countryside.
Lalla Mira takes up the number two position. She will make people laugh but will take possession of people who laugh or cry excessively and especially of those who gossip. When possessed, it is necessary to put henna on one’s hands and in one’s nose and mouth. Mira likes the colors yellow and orange; her favorite incense is yellow jawi; and she responds best to the music of the Hamadsha and the Jilali (another Sufi brotherhood).
Rounding out the trio is the lovely Lalla Malika, sometimes known as the “henna jinniyya” (the feminine form of the word jinn). This flirty, promiscuous jinn loves to tickle people and make them laugh; she demands that her followers be well dressed and perfumed. Malika, with her fondness for married men, speaks only French and can be found in clothes closets. Her favorite color is pink; she likes sandalwood incense; and her favorite music is from the Gnawa and Jilali. Before hennaing, one should burn sandalwood to prevent Malika’s tickling from smudging the work.
For much more information about Moroccan henna please take a look at our book, Moor: A Henna Atlas of Morocco by Lisa Butterworth and Nic Tharpa Cartier.
For more information about henna history you can't do better than the blog of Noam Sienna. His articles are fascinating yet scholarly with photos that will blow you away.